PHOENIX (AP) — Two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups, a jury said Monday.
The civil rights trial marks one of boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have long said was a corrupt regime in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. The towns were accused of doing the bidding of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The judge will now decide which punishments to impose on the towns. Federal authorities have not specified the changes they will seek, but they could ask for the Colorado City Marshal's Office to be disbanded and for its duties to be handed over to local sheriff's offices.
The seven-week trial provided a rare glimpse into the communities that for years have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders. It also came as the federal government is waging fights on multiple fronts to rein in the activities of the church.
Near the end of the trial, a federal grand jury in Utah indicted several church leaders on criminal charges of conducting a food-stamp fraud scheme. The U.S. Labor Department has a separate action against a ranch with ties to the church over a pecan harvest in which children and teenagers were pulled out of class and forced to work long hours with few breaks.
Lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department said town employees assisted the sect's leader when he was a fugitive while telling the FBI that they knew nothing about his whereabouts and took orders from church leaders during closed-door meetings about whom to appoint to government jobs.
They say local police ignored the food-stamp fraud scheme and marriages between adult male church members and underage brides.
One woman who was denied a water connection testified that she had to haul water to her home and take away sewage for six years. A former sect member said police ignored hundreds of complaints of vandalism on his horse property because he was no longer part of the church.
The towns deny the allegations and say the federal government is persecuting town officials because it disapproves of their religion. Their lawyers said the case could leave other religions open to similar attacks in court and urged jurors not to punish the towns for the actions of imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs.
The federal government said town officials are beholden to Jeffs, who is believed to run the sect and influence town affairs from a Texas prison cell where he is serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting one of his 24 underage brides.
Jurors were told that Jeffs, whose followers believe he is a prophet who speaks for God, sneaks out coded messages through his attorneys and that some of his visitors document his spoken words by using watches that contain a recording device.
Federal attorneys describe the local police force and church's security operation as paranoid entities that worked to violate the rights of nonbelievers. Witnesses for the government said church security spied on people with cameras placed around the towns and positioned themselves to keep an eye on who was arriving.
The former head of church security described elaborate cloak-and-dagger efforts taken to avoid scrutiny from outside law enforcement, such as using "burner" cellphones, encrypted radios and driving 40 miles to make phone calls out of fear that a local cell tower was being monitored by investigators.